So close to heaven: sacred mountains in religions

There is something exciting about the mountains. They have always attracted crowds, their sheer size inspires. Anyone who has ever crossed the Alps will get an idea of ​​why people have always respected the mountains. Because of their height, mountains mark a kind of connection between heaven and earth: while the base of the mountain is firmly anchored to the earth, its summit seems to reach the highest heaven. And how impressive a mountain whose summit was lost in the clouds must have been to the people of past generations. So it’s no wonder that Berge has always been considered a special place to meet the gods.

In many religions, the gods were believed to reside in the mountains. Therefore, different shrines or religious places were built there. The best-known example of this is probably the world of the Greek gods: In Greek mythology, Olympus was chosen as the home of the pantheon of gods. Sometimes such a sacred mountain became the center of the world: Mount Meru (Sumeru) is considered in Hinduism and Buddhism as a world mountain that marks the center of the entire universe. At its top is the source of the primordial river, which flows from the mountain in four different directions. While the top of the mountain touches the sky, its foot reaches down to the underworld. the world mountain thus stands as the connecting center between above and below and between all the continents.

Mountain pilgrimage as an ascent of the soul

Climbing such a sacred mountain is associated with the idea of ​​special purification or inner purification. Anyone who reaches the top and wants to be especially close to heaven there needs the necessary inner attitude. The path from the foot of the mountain to its summit opens up the possibility of shedding one’s own ballast, clearing one’s thoughts, and then opening with a new clarity and inner freedom at the summit of the encounter with the sky. This is the case, for example, with the Aborigines and their ascent of their sacred mountain, Uluru.

Churches, temples or religious shrines have often been built there because of the special proximity to God at the top. And where there were no natural elevations in the landscape, they were simply created by human hands to give people access to the divine realms. The pyramids are impressive examples of such efforts. On the Indonesian island of Java, the Borobudur temple complex rises into the sky like a mighty pyramid. The entire complex is built in the shape of an artificial mountain. the visitor is invited to climb the sacred mountain. Similar constructions were the ziggurat in Mesopotamia or the pyramids in Egypt and Central America.

Image: ©KNA

Pyramids like here in Egypt are impressive human efforts to create artificial sacred mountains.

As a place of encounter with God, mountains are also often places of God’s revelation. The best known example of this can be found in the Old Testament: Mount Horeb at Sinai becomes the mountain of God’s proclamation and his commandments. It describes how Moses dared to climb the mountain to meet God there and receive his law there. And with the tablets in his arms, on which the divine command is written, Moses descends from the mountain and delivers to the people of Israel the decrees that he himself received. Something similar happens in Islam: there is Mount Hira to which the prophet Muhammad retreats to receive the first of the divine revelations there. In Muslim tradition, Muhammad is said to have retired to the mountain for a certain period each year to meditate and find peace there.

Biblically, many points of contact can be found with the religious-historical tradition of holy mountains: A prominent example in the Old Testament is Mount Horeb in the Sinai Mountains, already mentioned. As Ex 3:1 describes, Horeb was a “Mountain of God” even before the story of Moses, which eventually also became important during the episode surrounding the prophet Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 19: 8). According to Proverbs 19, Horeb is the place where Moses and God met, and Proverbs 24 describes how the covenant between God and the people of Israel was made at Horeb. According to Ex 34:5, God does not remain on the heights of Horeb, he descends in a cloud with Moses to promise the people of Israel his constant presence.

When holy mountains change religion

In the Old Testament, mountains are attested as places of worship or for sacrificial ceremonies: Abraham must offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice on a mountain in the land of Moriah (Gen. 22), on top of Mount Pisgah Balaam and Balak. they set up seven altars to honor the bulls and sacrifice rams (Deuteronomy 23:14), on Mount Ebal Joshua builds a sanctuary for God (John 8:30) and Mount Carmel is handed down as the place of God’s judgment ( 1 Kings 18). In addition, sacrificial places for foreign gods, which were built on the heights of the mountains, are attested.

Both Mount Hermon and Mount Gerizim are repeatedly discussed in the Old Testament: “Tabor and Hermon shout for joy at your name,” says Psalm 89. And Mount Gerizim becomes the place for the sanctuary of the Samaritans, who built their temple there after they have renounced the tradition of Jerusalem. Later, the Romans continued this tradition of the sacred mountain by building a temple to Zeus on Mount Gerizim. This in turn is replaced by a Byzantine church. This example shows that there can certainly be a tradition of sacred mountains in all religions.

Image: ©KNA / Corinna Kern

Even today, the Samaritans make an annual pilgrimage to the holy Mount Gerizim in the West Bank to celebrate Passover.

The most famous holy mountain in the Old Testament is of course Mount Zion: according to Isa 2:2 it is the place of the Lord’s house. it is the highest of the mountains, ruling over all the hills, and to which all the peoples flock (Mic 4:1). Zion is the holy mountain in Jerusalem (Isa 27:13), here is the altar where burnt offerings and sacrifices are offered (Isa 56:7). whoever calls upon God on this mountain will be heard (Psalm 3:5).

Many holy mountains have also been handed down in the New Testament: Jesus is said to have established the circle of twelve on a mountain (Mk 3:13-19), Jesus repeatedly withdrew to a mountain to pray in solitude (Mk 6:46). A prominent place is the mountain of the Beatitudes and the subsequent parenesis (Mt 5,1-7,29) as well as the mountain on which Jesus is transfigured (Mk 9,2-10). In connection with the passion story, Jesus withdraws to the Mount of Olives to pray. there he is also arrested by his persecutors. And according to Acts 1:12, the Mount of Olives is also the place of Jesus’ ascension. Matthew also records the Ascension, although he transfers it to Galilee, but also locates it there on a mountain (28.16).

Holy mountains are revered to this day and are not only found in the Holy Land, but are also widespread here in Europe: St Annaberg in Upper Silesia is well-known, for example. To this day it is one of the most important places of pilgrimage in the region. In the area of ​​the Czech town of Králíky (Grulich) is the mountain of the Mother of God with a pilgrimage church and monastery. In Piedmont and Lombardy there are the so-called “Sacri Monti”, large chapels built on mountains. Andechs Monastery is located on the “Holy Mountain of Bavaria” and in China there are several holy mountains that are worshiped by members of various religions.

By Fabian Brand

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